Edited and with an Introduction by Bill Morgan.
At the point this second volume of his Collected Letters opens, William S. Burroughs has been living outside of the USA for the best part of a decade, now settled in the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, and his breakthrough novel Naked Lunch has just been published by the Olympia Press. He was just about to be profiled in Life magazine – the subject of a pained exchange with his outraged mother, Laura Lee Burroughs – and his newfound friend and collaborator Brion Gysin had just had the “happy accident” that led to the Cut-Ups, of which we will hear a great deal.
The first volume ended with a letter to Allen Ginsberg, and this new collection picks up literally where it left off, with a letter written to him the very next day (Oct 30, 1959). We are in fairly familiar territory here: giving thanks to Ginsberg for a supply of mescaline, catching up on gossip about mutual acquaintances, Gregory Corso and Jacques Stern, and an amusing anecdote about Henri Michaux.
So far so good, but things progress at an accelerating rate: the real story here is Burroughs coming of age as a writer, differentiating himself from his Beat peers, and finding his own voice.
Defending his work at the 1962 International Writer’s Conference on “The Future of the Novel,” critic Mary McCarthy said that one of the things that set Burroughs apart was his “aerial perspective,” and it has been argued that he belongs more with the writers and thinkers of the European avante garde tradition. Editor Bill Morgan describes in his Introduction how these letters give
…witness to an era in which Burroughs became the centre of a new coterie of creative people who were not related to the Beat Generation. With their assistance, Burroughs became an influential artistic and cultural leader whose reputation spread well beyond the literary world…
As well as old friends Alan Ansen, Paul Bowles, Corso, and Ginsberg, Burroughs’ new horizons expanded to include, amongst others, Antony Balch, Charles Henri Ford, Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Portman, Ian Somerville, Terry Southern, and Alex Trocchi. However, the single most important figure is without doubt Brion Gysin, who soon replaces Ginsberg as Burroughs’s most trusted collaborator and confidante (although never lover). On December 2nd, 1959, Burroughs writes to Allen “I have met my first master in Brion.” They quickly overcame previous rather cool impressions from Tangier, and plunged into the slippery psychic symbiosis of “The Third Mind.”
From famed medium Eileen Garret to Hassan ibn Sabbah, Old Man of the Mountains & Master of the Assassins, against a backdrop of ecstatic Moroccan trance music, curses, mirror-gazing, spells and trances, and the non-chemical expansion of awareness made possible through Cut-Ups, Flicker, and Playback, we follow Burroughs’ life as it unfolds during this eventful period. We also meet the Cambridge mathematician Ian Somerville (“the technical sergeant”), who facilitates the Dreamachine and tape-recorder experiments, and spoilt rich-kid jailbait Mikey Portman (“the medium”) – who despite his bad habits, good looks, money, and youth would eventually drive Burroughs to distraction.
All the usual obsessions and preoccupations are here: Cut-Ups loom large, as well as endless iteration of their possible applications; Drugs, of course – although sometimes as much against as for, as numerous letters promoting the apomorphine treatment for addiction attest; Film – both the experiments with Balch and various projected adaptations involving Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, and a former CIA hitman that all-too-predictably amount to nothing; and the strange dance with Scientology, deserving a book all of its own…
Also included are diplomatic appeals to his long-suffering mother, too-little-too-late attempts to reach out to his “cursed from birth” son, Billy Jnr., and endless struggles with publishers (mostly over money).
It is ironic that as his concerns became ever more internalised – and at times quite literally Occult – and the work he is producing is amongst his most “difficult,” that the model of “William Burroughs” as an icon of counterculture cool is born (his appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles being perhaps the ultimate endorsement). His engagement with experimental methods, non-literary forms, and the Underground Press seems strangely at odds with his recurring hope that the next project will be a commercial breakthrough: it is nothing short of hilarious when he reports, regarding The Wild Boys, that “Antony [Balch] swears it will be a best seller…”
There is plenty here to delight diehard fans, entertain the curious, and fuel further speculation. The engagement of Burroughs & Gysin, firstly with Scientology, and secondly with what they called “the Magical Universe,” are two topics clearly deserving of exploration. The fact that at the time of this writing, Tim Cummins in his Review for English newspaper The Independent characterises how “the two worked at the centre of a web of occult and artistic actions” (and the order of emphasis that he gives there) gives notice that the time is right for just such re-evaluation.
U.K. hardback edition, 490pp incl. 16pp b & w plates, first published 1st March 2012 by Penguin Classics. Buy it here.
This review was originally published in Beatdom #11.